“You’ve taught me so much. Thank you. You’ve really changed the way I look at the world.”
Variations of this line plague memories of every romantic break-up I have ever had – whether I walked away at the end or whether he did. This parting line is usually followed by a wistful look, a last kiss, a sincere hug, and then they’d be off. You don’t need me to tell you that most of the time that really is that – you may never see them again. If you do, it’s often an awkward and unrecognisable encounter; leaning against a doorway in a crowded room at a birthday party, pretending to be interested in his cousin’s new baby as you slurp vodka punch and wonder how you survived – let alone enjoyed – a year together.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that relationships are, at their core, about the mutual exchange of ideas, values, ways of looking at the world, so learning from each other is not just an added bonus, but a crucial facet. It’s not that I learned nothing from these men, most of whom have been smart, talented and unique individuals. But here’s the thing: it’s not equal. While I might have learned about specific points of interest – architecture, comedy, rugby – it seems that most of my former flames have walked away from our relationship with an entirely different moral and social lens. One ex-boyfriend told me that I had completely changed his approach to life, that only after spending time with me did he really think about justice, empathy and love in deep and fulfilling ways. Another ex told me that I had made him become ‘kinder’.
You might think I would (or should) feel flattered. To an extent, I do. But I am tired. Not just tired – exhausted. Fed up. Beat. Totally and utterly drained. The problem is that while you’re in the relationship, imbuing the other person with your enlightened outlook feels connecting and lovely. But the minute the relationship ends and they fire that parting line at you, you cannot help but feel used. This relationship – this relationship that didn’t work – has left you bruised and grieving – chances are he’s also bruised and grieving. But by gosh, how he has grown as a person! All because of you! Isn’t it wonderful!
It’s not that he set out to use you, but use you he did.
This feels very different to emotional labour; an increasingly popular phrase referring to the description of ‘the repeated, taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance’. Emotional labour has grown in recognition under the feminist spotlight. Quite rightly, more and more women are waking up to the idea: sorting out the bills, remembering family birthdays and school projects, cleaning the house. This work is work. Yet it is unpaid and in large part thankless. (It’s a depressing outcome of consumer capitalism that anything that doesn’t have a monetary value attached is not recognised as labour).
But what I’m describing is different. I’m acknowledging another kind of labour – let’s call it ‘educational labour’. Examples of this can be found in bitesize, everyday conversations that happen between a couple: advising your partner how best to respond to a text message from a housemate about the washing up (‘No, don’t make your language defensive. Best to accept this one – pick your battles’), or what he should to say to a friend who’s had a nasty break-up (‘just listen to him, he’s not ready to hear that you think she’s a bitch’), or how to cancel on plans last minute without making the other person feel rejected (‘apologise sincerely and suggest another date’). The encounters are so fluid they’re hardly noticeable. But by god, they’re exhausting.
And I’m not alone in feeling this. The more conversations I have with other women, the more I realise how common this feeling is. It’s a feeling of having imparted your emotional wisdom to your significant other, and then – during or after the relationship – feeling a bit slighted, a bit used, a bit underappreciated. I have not understood any of this to be valid or substantive until now. It was only when I began to have this dialogue with other women that I realised how insidious this was; highlighted by something a friend said to me: ″What we’re doing here, is we’re emotionally educating our partners. And we’re doing it for free.”
Women are widely recognised and accepted as being more ‘emotionally intelligent’ than men. But, increasingly, there’s a consensus that there is no genetic reason to back this up. Women have been scrutinised for our emotions for centuries and so we’ve had to learn how to manage them – we’re crazy, psycho, naggy, sulky, stroppy, bossy. Ever hear these words ascribed to men? No, didn’t think so.
I don’t know exactly what the answer is. It lies somewhere in between men taking responsibility for their emotional education and appreciating women for the wisdom they teach. Perhaps it also lies in setting boundaries – knowing when to protect yourself, draw a line so that a relationship (or its ending) doesn’t make you feel shafted.
But I do know that educational labour is real and in the next relationship I get into, I’m going to start charging the Living Wage.